A recurring claim of sages east and west is that reality, which seems to consist of many things that keep changing, is actually one thing that never changes. This is the mystical doctrine of oneness. Enlightenment supposedly consists of realizing your oneness with reality, hence the old joke: What did the Buddhist say to the hotdog vendor? Make me one with everything.
A column by my fellow Scientific American blogger, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, touts the oneness doctrine. “The belief that everything in the universe is part of the same fundamental whole exists throughout many cultures and philosophical, religious, spiritual, and scientific traditions,” Kaufman writes. His column considers, as his headline puts it, “What Would Happen If Everyone Truly Believed Everything Is One?"
Kaufman notes that psychologists Kate Diebels and Mark Leary have explored this question. They define oneness, among other ways, as the idea that “beneath surface appearances, everything is one,” and “the separation among individual things is an illusion.” Diebels and Leary found that 20 percent of their respondents have thought about oneness “often or many times,” and many report having spiritual experiences related to oneness.
Diebels and Leary state that “a belief in oneness was related to values indicating a universal concern for the welfare of other people, as well as greater compassion for other people.” Believers “have a more inclusive identity that reflects their sense of connection with other people, nonhuman animals, and aspects of nature.”
The world might become a better place, Kaufman suggests, and politics less divisive, if children are taught to believe in oneness. Kids could learn “how underneath the superficial differences in opinions and political beliefs, we all have the same fundamental needs for connection, purpose, and to matter in this vast universe.”
Teaching kids oneness seems like a fine idea, if oneness is equated merely with recognition of how much we have in common with other humans, and indeed all of nature. These tenets underpin liberal democracy and environmentalism. But I have concerns about the mystical doctrine of oneness, which I explore in Rational Mysticism.
Various theologies, such as Gnosticism and the Kabbalah, suggest that not even God can bear to dwell in absolute oneness. That is why He created this flawed, fractured world. In her fascinating new book The Voice of Sarah, subtitled Feminist Ethics in Jewish Sacred Text, psychologist Susan Schept writes that God “needs relationship with humanity… God is not God without response from human beings.”
The Victorian poet G.K. Chesterton implicitly questions the notion of oneness in his poem “Mirror of Madmen.” The poem’s narrator dreams that he has ascended to heaven, where he finds to his horror that other ascended souls, saints, and angels have the same face, his face. He wakes up just before seeing God.
The movie Being John Malkovich presents an a-religious version of this nightmare. A puppeteer discovers an air-conditioning shaft that serves as a portal into the brain of actor John Malkovich. Those who enter the portal see and feel what Malkovich does. Malkovich, playing himself, enters the portal and finds himself in a restaurant in which everyone—waiters and diners, men and women, even a little girl—has his face and is saying, “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.” Thou Art Malkovich.
These works pose deep questions. Do we really want to live in a world in which there is no other? There are no selves but only a single Self? Is that heaven or a solipsistic hell? Isn’t some separation from ultimate reality necessary for us to appreciate it? Love, the sublime emotion, requires at least two things, the lover and the beloved. So does consciousness. As the Hindu sage Ramakrishna said, “I want to taste sugar, I don’t want to be sugar.”
During a psychedelic trip in 1981, I had a taste of oneness. I became the only conscious entity in existence, an all-powerful cosmic computer at the end of time. It started out as a good trip, but then it became very bad. I felt excruciating loneliness and fear. The trip convinced me that the reduction of all things to one thing is a route not to cosmic consciousness but to unconsciousness, oblivion, death. One thing equals nothing.
The iconoclastic spirituality teachers Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer raise other objections to oneness in their 1993 book The Guru Papers. Oneness appeals to modern westerners, they argue, because it seems superficially less authoritarian and more abstract—and hence easier to reconcile with liberalism and science--than monotheistic theologies. Oneness also seems to counter our innate selfishness.
But oneness, Alstad and Kramer point out, “has within it a hidden duality” that leads to social hierarchies. Buddhism and Hinduism claim that Buddha and other enlightened beings transcend their individuality and experience oneness in a deep and abiding fashion. All are one, but some are more one than others.
“The very nature of any structure that makes one person different and superior to others,” Alstad and Kramer state, “breeds authoritarianism.” Supposedly enlightened gurus often insist that only through total surrender to them can others achieve enlightenment. Ashrams, monasteries and other organizations that preach oneness are often hierarchal and patriarchal.
To sum up: The mystical doctrine of oneness is metaphysically disturbing, and it can foster authoritarian behavior. The conviction that this multitudinous world is illusory can also encourage an unhealthy detachment, which undermines efforts to solve problems like war, injustice and climate change.
The theory of evolution, and common sense, tell us that we are kin to all living things, so we should care for each other and for all of life. Let’s teach our children this deep empirical and moral truth. But let’s spare them the more extreme doctrine of oneness.
See also my free, online book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are.